Disagreement in Olympia over whether to backfill funding cuts to Sound Transit.
Disagreement in Olympia over whether to backfill funding cuts to Sound Transit. Don Wilson/sound transit

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Three days after state senators voted to backfill a transit funding hole of their own making with education money, a state House committee has rejected that idea.

Lawmakers in both chambers have been working for two legislative sessions to appease car owners complaining about higher car tab taxes. Those taxes were part of the $54 billion Sound Transit 3 package voters across Puget Sound approved in 2016. The formula Sound Transit uses to calculate the car tab fees inflates car values. Changing the formula would lower car tab taxes for some, but would also result in a loss of expected funding for Sound Transit. The bills with the most traction this session would directly cost Sound Transit $780 million, but could cost a total of about $2 billion because of higher borrowing costs to replace the lost funding, according to the agency. While Republicans have led the anti-Sound Transit drumbeat in Olympia, many Democrats agree the formula should be changed. Others say it should be changed only if the legislature finds another source of money to backfill the funding loss.

The most recent proposal to address all this was to exempt Sound Transit from certain taxes during construction. Those tax revenues had been designated for county education programs, including potentially some programs for homeless students. The state Senate approved that proposal with a 30-14 vote during a floor debate that ran past midnight Wednesday.

On Saturday morning, the House Transportation Committee took up the Senate's bill and stripped the Senate's proposed funding source. The bill would now change the valuation formula, which will cause the funding hit to Sound Transit, but would not backfill that money. Both the Senate and House versions would prohibit Sound Transit from fully eliminating any light rail or bus projects, instead directing the agency to look for savings and cost reductions.

During the House committee vote Saturday, Tacoma Democrat Representative Jake Fey voted against the change and said, "I actually love the Senate bill."

"I'm all in favor of the proposal in terms of reducing the car tabs, but I do not believe it should be at the sacrifice of making sure that Sound Transit 3 is completed," Fey said.

Another Democrat, Mukilteo Representative Lillian Ortiz-Self, said she understood the need to complete light rail on time, but "I just don't want to see money for education taken away from our counties."

"I believe we can continue to negotiate and find a way to backfill some of these dollars that isn't on the backs of our children," Ortiz-Self said.

The legislative session ends Thursday.